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Allentown Art Museum plans cultural renaissance, piggybacks on downtown’s development boom

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Allentown Art Museum president and CEO David Mickenberg announces the museum's expansion and community outreach plans Thursday to an audience in front of the museum. City Center Investment Corp. president and CEO J.B. Reilly, seated in front, is partnering on developing artists' apartments for the museum.
Allentown Art Museum president and CEO David Mickenberg announces the museum's expansion and community outreach plans Thursday to an audience in front of the museum. City Center Investment Corp. president and CEO J.B. Reilly, seated in front, is partnering on developing artists' apartments for the museum. - (Photo / )

A 400-seat banquet hall, and apartments and workspaces for artists are some of the ambitious plans the Allentown Art Museum has set out for itself as it retools its image and strategy for growth.

Museum president and CEO David Mickenberg publicly revealed the institution’s plans Thursday evening to a large audience seated outside the museum on N. Fifth Street in downtown Allentown.

Along with a bright, new colorful logo intended to refresh the 83-year-old museum’s image, officials revealed details of their plan to expand the museum’s size, role and engagement with the community.

“The world of art is changing and art museums are changing,” Mickenberg said.

As officials embark on plans to revitalize the museum, they hope to piggyback on downtown Allentown’s economic boom, where more than $1 billion in new office and apartments have been built.

The museum has had a stagnant $3 million budget for the last five to six years. Museums have a cultural and economic value, Mickenberg said, and the Allentown museum needs to monetize its assets in order to grow.

Museum officials have been strategizing on how the arts can participate in the development of the downtown while increasing its engagement with a diverse urban community.

Although still in the conceptual stage, the museum has plans to build the Center for Creativity and Innovation within the next two to five years, Mickenberg said.

The 65,000-square-foot building would house 40 to 70 affordable apartment units for artists, a 400-seat banquet hall that could be rented for events, and space for performances, programs and art storage.

“We are looking at [the museum’s] property and another. Our goal is move the center into the community and into the NIZ (Neighborhood Improvement Zone),” Mickenberg said later.

The museum is running out of space for its current collection and will need more room as officials embark on a plan to acquire more art with a global perspective.

The museum has also commissioned a work from an artist for the first time, the renowned British-Nigerian sculptor Yinka Shonibare, which will debut at the museum in January.

Mickenberg announced a partnership with City Center Investment Corp., the major developer in Allentown’s construction boom. The museum will manage three apartments for artists in a six-story building City Center is constructing at 520 Hamilton St. where the former Crocodile Rock club was located. Artists would live and work during residencies that range from three months to a year.

In the four years since Mickenberg has headed the museum, the board of trustees has added a new generation of members to take the institution in a new direction

“It’s a new day for the museum,” Mickenberg said.

Among the projects the museum is working on:

• Increasing membership. Residents of City Center’s Strata apartments are given free membership and Circle 31, the museum’s new group of young professionals is tasked with attracting new members.

• More partnerships and programs with other arts organizations that represents the performing arts.

• Create a Museum Institute, which would convene art organizations for a two-day conference in late April or early May to discuss the arts role in the economic development of the community.

• Arts walking trails. Conceived by the Allentown School District and designed by parents and teachers, the 10,000-step arts walking trails would lead participants from iconic spots in and near the city to the front doors of the Allentown Art Museum.

• A free, four-week summer arts camp for middle school students.

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